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Street Crime in Costa Rica

Street Crime in Costa RicaIn Costa Rican cities all homes are barricaded with steel fences, all doors are perpetually locked, and external windows are criss-crossed with a menagerie of iron bars. The first time that I was in this country I was taken aback by the evident fear that Costa Ricans seem to have for [...]

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Street Crime in Costa Rica

In Costa Rican cities all homes are barricaded with steel fences, all doors are perpetually locked, and external windows are criss-crossed with a menagerie of iron bars. The first time that I was in this country I was taken aback by the evident fear that Costa Ricans seem to have for their neighbors. This is a fear which has forced the populations of entire cities into the cages which have become their homes. A fear that makes people uneasy to walk down their own streets and puts entire communities on perpetual guard. I never thought of Costa Rica as being a particularly dangerous country, and I never imagined that the people here would be living inside of very real cages. I once scoffed at these iron bars, but on my return to this country I have heard some stories that have made me realize that the people here really feel as if these palisades are necessary.

Cages around a home in Heredia, Costa Rica.

View from inside of a cage

All of these events have happened within the past six months during normal commuting hours:

1. A professor that I know at the national university of Costa Rica was having a small party at his home in the suburbs of San Jose when a group of armed masked men walked in through the front door, held everyone up at gunpoint, and stole everything. The police did nothing.

2. Two foreign students from the USA opened the door of their home in Heredia to find two masked men with guns who again took everything. The police did nothing.

3. I met a girl from the USA who had been robbed at knife point three times and severely verbally threatened once within the past four months in Heredia. All of these events happened in the early evening on main streets that were full of people. One time she was with a Costa Rica friend who had a knife put up to his throat while the American girl was force to submit her bags on fear that her friend would be harmed.The police did nothing.

4. A boy of US origins was robbed on three or four occasions in the streets of Heredia within the past few months. The last time was just a couple of days ago at 6:45PM on his walk home from school in front of a Burger King restaurant on a main street full of people. A kid asked him a question as he passed by on the street and he turned around to find three knifes promptly pressed up against his body. After the assault he tried to call the police, but was discouraged by a Costa Rican who asked, “Why do you want to call the police? They are not going to do anything.”

5. On his first night in Costa Rica a friend of mine was in a neighborhood (La Esperanza) of Heredia when he heard shouts of “Thief Thief He has a gun He just ran into the park ” from a Costa Rican woman who was robbed of her purse. The men in the community quickly assembled themselves, found the thief, stripped him naked, and beat him to a pulp. The police showed up just to watch the beating.

6. A Costa Rican friend was walking down a busy street in downtown Heredia when a guy stuck a gun up to him and demanded money. The kid asked the thief if he was really going to shoot him in a street full of people. The thief ran away.

7. Two young women from the USA on separate occasions were seriously sexually assaulted by taxi drivers in Heredia, Costa Rica.

8. Many, many more stories similar to the ones above.

These are just a few of the many stories of robberies and assaults that have recently happened in the Heredia area of Costa Rica that I have heard during past week that I have stayed here. I am floored. I never imagined Costa Rica to be particularly dangerous.

Usually when a traveler is robbed it is because they make an error of judgement. I have often heard tales of robberies followed up by declarations by the victims that the incidence was partially their own fault. “I should not have been there at that time of night,” I have heard many travelers say (including myself). But I can not place any blame on someone who is robbed on a busy street during normal business hours on their walk home. I do not have much advice on how this can be avoided. This just seems really odd to me. This is Costa Rica, a major tourist country in the tropics, not a run down backwater slum. The criminals that are operating in the Heredia area do not seem to have very much fear of the police in Costa Rica. They taunt them daily, in fact. I just heard a story from a girl who watched a police officer pull his gun on a man. I guess the guy just looked at the cop and ripped the gun from his hands and threw it away. Odd stories. I would expect such tales to come out of Peru, Guyana, or Columbia, but not Costa Rica, and especially not in such intense intervals. Nearly everyday I hear a new story about how someone else was robbed the night before. Heredia is not a large city, it has more the flavor and feel of a large town, and it seems as if a gang of criminals are running amok. It has been readily shown that the police are not prepared to do anything about it. So what do the people who live here do?

Build cages and live in them.

I find that I no longer give a spiteful sigh when I have to pass through the outer layer of a fortress to go into my room. I have become almost thankful for my cage. I am very saddened to write this. I am a traveler, I feel that I abused some term of worldliness by my above statement. I feel as if I should be running with the thieves and finding out what is really going on. This is my job: to go out into the dangerous parts of the world and prove that it is not as bad as what people think. But sense tells me that if I tried this, I would just get robbed like everyone else. Maybe it would be worth it. I am a traveler, this is what I do, I travel and collect stories. But I can only take in the information that I am exposed to, which is often only small bits and pieces of any story. The incidents that I mentioned above are only a small cross-section of the rampant thief, muggings, and hold ups that has swept through Heredia. A traveler should be aware of their surroundings anywhere in Central America, people get robbed here, it is normal. To be held up in the streets at knife point is part of the experience of traveling in this region. But the frequency of street crime in Heredia is beyond anything that I have observed before. It is seriously an everyday event, but I refuse to be scared while walking down the streets, or avoiding contact with the people that I travel amongst.

How has personal security breached so badly in this part of Costa Rica?

The Costa Ricans almost unanimously say that it is because of Nicaraguan and Columbian immigrants.

“The Nicaraguans and Columbians are very dangerous here. You need to be careful. They are the ones robbing people, not us Costa Ricans.” I have received this warning all up and down Costa Rica, and it at first seems as if it is silly speculation, but I am now beginning to wonder if it is founded in some sort of fact.

Immigrants to any country tend to occupy the lowest rung of the economic strata, and it is my impression that crime is more rampant in impoverished urban areas. Immigrants in Costa Rica are removed from their native communities, and seem to have fortified themselves in communities (La Carpia) that have distinct social lines that separate them from the broader society. From the perspective that we are raised with in the USA, it seems as if the above statements that street crime in Costa Rica is mostly carried out by immigrants are redundant stereotypes. But stereotypes are sometimes the only warnings of danger that someone can have- I am told that Nicaraguans and Columbians have a darker skin tone and that Costa Ricans can identify them in the streets. I am not so sure about this.

But I feel that stereotypes are often born out of and evolve from patterns. It is my impression, outside of pure racial pride and bigotry, that stereotypes do not often arise from nowhere.

Some people say that this is racist prejudice. Some people say that it is a matter of circumstance and national origin or culture has little to do with it.

Somebody tell me what is going on.

I think I just need to get out into the countryside. All urban areas are cease pits of violence, crime, and disaster. To walk in the hills is to be away from all of this.

Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Barva, Costa Rica
January 31, 2007

Filed under: Central America, Costa Rica, Travel Problems

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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8 comments… add one

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  • alf November 23, 2011, 2:21 pm

    A Costa Rican here.

    Costa Rica has such huge contradictions. In school we get the same sales pitch the country gives to its visitors: this is paradise! it is safe, it is peaceful.

    Yet, we have the most cell-like houses in the world I think. People don’t go out late at night. We are victims of a collapsed police and justice system, and people are paranoid and scared. Why else would your house look like that if you are not terrified of whatever might be outside?

    Yet, the sales pitch is so well installed in the citizenry wiring, they look at you funny if you say you want to travel. ‘Isn’t it too dangerous to go to former Yugoslavian countries?’ ‘Why go to Germany? they are racists’ (while they display an irrational xenophobia to Nicaraguans and Colombians). ‘African countries are just too dangerous! Didn’t you watch The Last King of Scotland?’. To make this worse, the country keeps coming out as ‘the happiest country on Earth’ in magazine articles all over the world somehow. These people really do think they live in the best country in the world, the happiest, the safest, wealthy enough to have a reasonable life quality. They think the downsides are part of the deal: living behind bars, not honking at other cars because you might get shot, not complaining because the richest ones don’t pay any taxes, and voting for the same two political parties (comprised of those aforementioned rich guys) again because they didn’t steal that much.

    In fact, I know no Costa Ricans that are world nomads. Some go out once every few years, to USA, London, Paris, Rome, never off the beaten path. We are a lot like hobbits, never going out of the Shire, while we disregard how big the world is outside.

    Funny creatures, the Costa Ricans.

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    • Wade Shepard November 24, 2011, 11:43 am

      Thanks for this, Alf,

      It is sometimes difficult to know when traveling and writing if your impressions of a place are representative of the whole or if maybe you’ve had some atypical experiences, or maybe you’re just way off. I suppose I stayed for a somewhat extended time in some places in Costa Rica that are not really tourist destinations, and this is what really shocked me: the people live in fear, and, often, that fear is warranted. It was amazing the frequency of people that I knew personally who were robbed, held up at gun point, were kidnapped, had groups of armed men break into their homes. This stuff is normal in the newspapers, but when you actually know the victims you can really see the reality of such incidents. I have said this often, but I’ve been to Haiti, El Salvador, Colombia, lots of countries that are suppose to be far more dangerous than Costa Rica, but it the latter country that really stands out as being problematic. You’re right, the police system is virtually non-existent. What is worse is that everyone seems to know it. When people are being held up at knife point in broad daylight out in the open in front of a Burger King, there is little fear of the cops. Where I’ve stayed crime prevention was done on a community level, were the citizens would essentially form impromptu lynch mobs to combat thieves, but this did not really even seem to be effective enough. I can really see the security culture of Costa Rica going the same way as San Salvador, where people put up gates not only around their own homes but their entire neighborhoods as well. It is sad, man, it is real sad when a country’s police force basically just ceases doing its jobs and everyone leaves the population at the expense of, basically, anyone who wants to pick up a knife or gun and go searching for a quick payday.

      But it is the reputation of Costa Rica as being a safe, paradise like place that really gets me. I have to admit that when I arrived the first time I was there I had that notion of that is what the country would be like. I had already spent some years in South America and traveled extensively in other parts of the world, but nothing prepared be for the gap in reputation and reality in Costa Rica. It is interesting that Costa Ricans are taught the same thing about their country.

      Don’t get me wrong here, Costa Rica is a beautiful country, and once out of the cities or some areas on the coast, the places are amazing and pretty secure. The mountains seem to be their own country for how removed from the problems of the low lands they seem to be.

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  • Elio January 10, 2013, 7:15 am

    Just came across this worrying post…. Is it the same as described here today? This post is now 5 years old, I hope things got better… Moving soon there for work, in Pavas, Heredia.

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    • Wade Shepard January 10, 2013, 7:17 pm

      Hello Elio,

      Haven’t been there since the time I published this post, but this more less describes Central America in general. Sure, I found Heredia a little worse as far as street crime, but these are the same problems that the entire region has.

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    • alf January 11, 2013, 1:55 am

      Yeah, things haven’t got any better. If the last two governments have done anything is to weaken the court system for their own benefit, which is clearly a good thing for any type of crime and for police corruption.

      Pavas is a large district, with some ok areas (Rohrmoser and in the general area around the U.S. embassy and the Tobías Bolaños airport), but it has neighborhoods that are downright dangerous (to the point that some taxi drivers will not take the chance to even drive you to those neighborhoods).

      Just practice a lot of caution: not leaving your car parked by the street (my father lost his car a couple years ago parked in Rohrmoser when visiting part of our family living there, before that he got busted windows a few times from teenagers apparently trying to steal the stereo), don’t flash a laptop or smartphones when walking outside (if you are a pedestrian don’t carry a very evident laptop carrier, use a backpack or something inconspicuous).

      If there is any security initiative in your neighborhood, support it; paying a private security company to patrol your block is a common measure.

      I don’t want to make you feel bad about your new location. I personally wouldn’t like to live there, but thousands of people (including some of my friends and family) manage to do it safely by taking precautions.

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  • Elio January 11, 2013, 3:46 am

    Thanks all for the feedback, really! Thing is, I was also evaluating to live outside that neighbourhood (say, Escazu or wherever else you might suggest as a safer & nicer neighborhood) and then driving to work. Would you agree?

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    • alf January 11, 2013, 4:02 am

      Escazú is certainly safer (still, caution is recommended), but traffic from and to Escazú gets very bad at peak hours.

      Another option is Sabana, that has a couple routes towards Pavas and will be more straightforward to drive at any time of the day.

      Appartments in Sabana and Escazú can be very pricy. I would first check the options in Pavas itself, keeping in mind that locations in the Rohrmoser neighborhood and in general anything closer to downtown that the U.S Embassy is reasonably safer that the rest of the Pavas district. Pavas is the largest district in the country, so some parts are fine, there are some very good neighborhoods, and other parts are sketchy.

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    • Wade Shepard January 11, 2013, 9:07 pm

      I stayed for a while in Barva, which is just outside of Heredia, and it was pretty nice — far more secure and near mountains.

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